Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Greatest Commandment - A sermon preached in Magheralin and Dollingstown on 5th November 2006. Mark 12:28-34

[This is the text version I worked from, but more was added in as it was preached in each of the two churches. Plus, at the second preach, the introduction was changed to confront the congregation with the fact that they are law-breakers, in wearing clothes of mixed fibres or not bringing an animal to sacrifice]

What do you make of the Old Testament Law? How do we view it today? Those laws about sacrificing animals or not wearing clothing of mixed fibres… What is it all about?

What is the most important commandment? Out of the first five books of the Old Testament, what is it that we should pay most attention to?

Jesus was in Jerusalem, in the week leading up to the crucifixion. Just a few days earlier, he had entered the city on the back of a donkey, and through the days since, he had been debating with the Pharisees and Sadducees and teachers of the law.

You can see the various groups lining up to get their question in, to try to trick Jesus. To try to trap him with his words. Just before our reading, he had been debating with the Sadducees about the resurrection – the Sadducees being the very people who denied the resurrection!

And then, in the background, one individual, a teacher of the law, comes up to the edge of the crowd, listening in. Being impressed with Jesus’ good reply, he chimes in with the next question. The ‘big’ question for the legal and religious people of the day: ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’

You must remember that this debate had raged for years, with lots of different opinions. After all, there were over 600 individual commandments in the Books of the Law – which was most important? For Hillel, one such teacher of the law, his understanding was that ‘What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.’

So for Hillel, it seemed that the whole Law was concerned with person to person relations. But as we’ll see, Jesus’ answer is even more comprehensive than that. But how do we take the answer? What do we do about it? The words are so familiar – we need to be careful to hear them today afresh.

‘The most important one is this: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Shema – the daily prayer given by Moses.

For Jesus, this is the most important command in the Bible. But notice that it doesn’t start with the command – it doesn’t start with what we have to do. Rather, it starts with a statement about God. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Another version suggests that it could also mean ‘The Lord our God is our Lord alone’ – our God is the only God.

Based on this, connected to this, flowing from this statement about God, we are then commanded to respond to him in obedience. Our obedience doesn’t spring from a barren legalism based on necessity and duty – rather, it arises from a loving relationship, from the provision of the Covenant God.

And what is our response to our one and only God? Love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength. Jesus adds the extra category of the mind – but the point is the same – we are commanded to love God with every part of our being.

So what does it mean to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength? Loving God with our heart… The heart was the centre of the will and mind, and the seat of emotions for the Jewish world view. Loving God with our soul… The soul was seen as the centre of being, the source of life. Loving God with our mind… The mind is where your thoughts come from, so do your thoughts reflect love of God? Does what you think about show your love and obedience of God? Loving God with our strength… Your strength or might is your energy; the things you do. Does what you do and how you act show your love of God? Do you love God by what you do?

Taken together – does everything you do show your love of God? Both the things that others can see, as well as the hidden thoughts and desires? Are you committed to obeying and loving God in all of your being?

So, having thought about all that, you might be thinking that the man got quite a comprehensive answer. So much, indeed, much more is contained in the answer of Jesus than the man could have expected. And yet, he gets even more than he bargained for. Because Jesus hasn’t finished. It’s as if the man is getting a buy-one-get-one-free offer. He asked Jesus what the most important commandment was; Jesus answered. And then he continues: ‘The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Here, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18. Flowing on from God being our God, and being one; and our response of loving God with all our being, we are then commanded to love our neighbour as ourselves. This raises two questions – first, who is our neighbour, and then how do we love them?

Who is our neighbour? Hearing the full context of Leviticus 19:18 might suggest to us a narrow definition: ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.’ ‘One of your people’ seems to be hinting at the people of Israel… But remember when Jesus was asked that question? The parable he responds with is that of the Good Samaritan – who demonstrated that the man’s neighbour was anyone.

So what does this mean for us, as we go about our daily lives? How can we love our neighbour as ourselves? It means that we should be treating others as we would want to be treated. Looking out for their needs, and putting their interests before our own. And not just the people we see around us in the pews. Our neighbour is whoever needs our help.

Someone might be thinking – if we’re called to love God first, and then second to love our neighbour – then how can that happen? If we direct all our attention to loving God, then how can we possibly love our neighbour as well? But the truth is that these two commandments are not contradictory, they’re not in competition. As we love God, so we also love other people – as we see the image of God in them, and put their needs first.

So there we have it, Jesus gives his summary of the Law – revealing the most important commandments. But what about the response? We’ll look first at the response of the man, and then think about our own response.

In some ways, the man’s response is surprising, and controversial. Remember as we hear his words that he is standing in Jerusalem, the holy city, with the Temple and its sacrifices.

‘Well said teacher. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

Can you see the significance of what Jesus has said, and what the man is saying? Loving God and neighbour is more important than the burnt offerings and sacrifices. In the very place where the sacrifices are offered, the sacrifices are declared to be not as important as loving God and neighbour.

But really, the Old Testament itself points to obedience being better than sacrifices. Think about King Saul, the first king of Israel. Why did God reject him as king? What had he done? If you have a Bible, turn over to 1 Samuel 15:22. God had commanded Saul to go and fight against the Amalekites, and utterly destroy everything – livestock as well as the people. Yet when Samuel the prophet came to the camp, he heard the sound of sheep and cattle, and saw the Amalekite king being held as prisoner. Saul tried to explain it away, saying that the livestock would be used to sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for the victory. But that wasn’t good enough for Samuel or God: ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’

So again, we find in Hosea: ‘For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings’ (Hosea 6:6). Jesus recognised that the man was ’not far from the kingdom of God’ – he had realised that the Jewish sacrifices wouldn’t make him ultimately right with God, but that God was looking for those who would love him.

So what about our response? How do we respond today to these challenging words? The command to love God with all we have, and to love our neighbour as ourself is not an easy one. Being realistic, we know we can’t do it by ourselves.

But Jesus has fulfilled these commands, as he fulfilled and completed the Law. As we trust in him, so we stand in Christ, and we become more like Jesus by the Spirit’s work in us. By ourselves, we can’t love God and others. But with the Spirit living and working in our hearts, we can do it more than we have.

So in the situations you are in tomorrow, how can you love God and love others? Mildred in Magheralin last Sunday was talking about ‘What Would Jesus Do’ – because Jesus perfectly loved God and loved others, we should ask ourselves – what would Jesus do in this situation?

Jesus has told us the two most important commandments – to love God, and to love our neighbour. In Matthew, we’re told that all the Law and Prophets hang (or depend) on these two commandments. This is the word of the Lord. Let us go and obey!

[It’s interesting to read at the end of the reading that ‘from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.’ Jesus had dealt with the trick questions and the difficult questions, and answered them perfectly. No one could trip him up. The sides were fixed. People were either for him, or against him. Where do you stand on Jesus? For, or against? ]

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